How Animal Shelters are Evolving


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The first animal shelter was more of a catch pen for stray horses and farm animals, run by a single person who wrangled up the animals and then charged people a fee to retrieve them. The creation of this transaction put a new value on animals, extending to companion animals like dogs and cats. During this period, these lost souls were kept in inhumane conditions, received little to no medical care, and if not retrieved by their owner or an interested buyer, faced imminent death.

In the late 1800s, concerned about the treatment of horses at these operations, the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia became the first organization to focus on the humane treatment of shelter animals. This intervention paved the way for improvements in animal welfare, rules and regulations around boarding animals, laws and legislation to protect animals, and the formation of other animal welfare organizations.

The most seismic undertaking has been that of the actual brick-and-mortar animal shelter and their operational standards. While animal welfare has many moving parts, public animal shelters are at the center of the axis in communities nationwide. From how it looks from passersby to the overarching philosophy driving operational protocols, to how it involves the people of the community, every detail matters when it comes to saving the lives of the animals inside.

The public shelter system is stretched thin, to say the least. Animals enter at what feels like lightning speed, but getting them safely out of the shelter often feels like a slow leak. When public shelters are at capacity and have no more kennel space to house homeless pets, they look for rescue resources, animal transfers, and adopters to come through with assistance. If enough assistance is not available, often euthanasia of selected animals occurs.

Ending the practice of killing animals for space is a driving force behind the tireless work people and organizations have been fighting for in public shelters. To tackle such an ingrained practice requires time, research, program and resource implementation, good and bad ideas, successes and failures, and a dedication from shelter staff, volunteers, advocates, community members, and animal lovers to not waver from what they believe is the right thing to do.

Changing the Way We Think
Science has played a tremendous role in innovative veterinary disease treatment and prevention. The expansion of veterinary school curriculum to include Shelter Medicine has made way for more compassionate care for shelter animals. Research has given us insight and understanding around the human-animal bond, and animal psychology. Technology has streamlined the daily paper shuffle into an accessible and accurate wealth of information, including shelter statistics that allow professionals to look at the system holistically, identify challenges, and develop solutions on a larger scale. And finally, compassionate people who care about animals have shown up, spoken out, and demanded transparency on behalf of the animals. These actions continue to bring lifesaving program development, changes in legislation, updates in animal protection laws, and a greater community awareness around animal welfare.

Creating a Collaborative Community
Community sheltering is a shelter model that focuses on saving the lives of homeless animals by providing a holistic model. Research has shown that often animals are surrendered due to lack of resources or assistance in an emergency. This means that shelters are meeting people and pets where they are, lifting adoption barriers, providing resources from pet food to veterinarian care to those in need, and much more.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, animal shelters were met with an overwhelming demand from the public who wanted to foster or adopt a pet. The time at home, for some, meant lifestyle changes that made adopting a new companion possible. This radical demand for companion animals made shelters and rescues stop to wonder if they had been missing something. Were all these people available before the pandemic? Was there this much interest in helping pets all along? How do we help everyone get involved?

The Power of First Impressions
Shelters are upgrading the way they appear to the public, leaving behind the dreary compound vibe and moving into a more modern and welcoming style. Welcoming building designs, bright and thoughtful spaces, and calming kennels encourage the public to visit and help shift the public perception of shelters being sad and scary places. Forward-thinking shelters know that creating a positive experience for the shelter visitors will keep them coming back and perhaps inspire them to sign up to volunteer or apply for a job.
For the animals, an updated facility can mean improved health and wellness protocols. For example, easier to clean kennels mean less stress on the animals. More space for programming means enrichment, like playgroups and training sessions outside the kennel. A welcoming facility means more caring volunteers will be on site to work closely with animals who need extra TLC. And, most important, a welcoming facility means more eager adopters will walk through the doors.

Photo courtesy San Diego Humane Society

Prioritizing Animal Health & Enrichment
Years ago, if a dog was picked up by animal control and dropped off at the shelter, that dog would be assessed right then and there for temperament. This temperament test would determine if said dog would make it to a kennel or be euthanized. If the dog lashed out, nipped, or bit during those first moments of being at the shelter, they would more than likely be deemed a danger and euthanized.
Today we understand that, like humans, a dog (or any being) thrust into a new, strange place will most likely feel fear and uncertainty. Like humans, different animals react differently to these feelings. Some shut down, some bite. We know now that animals in a new place need time to adjust to their new surroundings before they feel safe enough to show us their personality.
To accommodate this, some shelters are hiring animal behaviorists or trainers who have a deeper understanding about animal behavior and, more importantly, humane solutions to support them.
We also understand that animals are sentient beings, capable of feelings, able to create strong bonds with other animals and humans, with a need for mental and physical stimulation, movement, and ways to reduce or burn off stress. Shelters are addressing these needs in multiple ways, including:

• Playgroups indoors or outdoors give animals opportunity to socialize, play, and use their senses in a different way. It also allows them to burn off energy, reduces stress, and allows shelter staff and volunteers to see a dog’s personality bloom.
• In-kennel enrichment, such as presenting meals in food puzzles, adding toys for self-engagement, and providing human interaction with volunteers, including brushing, petting, or massaging.
• Daily individual walks give dogs a break from the kennel, offer a structured form of exercise, practice leash manners, explore sights and smells, and enjoy human companionship.
• Field trips with volunteers or staff, such as café outings or shopping trips, give animals a break from the shelter, an opportunity to practice their behavior skills, explore new sights and smells, enjoy a car ride, get one-on-one time with a companion and be seen by potential adopters.
• Pack walks or hikes offer socialization with people and other dogs, training, leash manners, and other training. opportunities, stress reduction, and more.
• The Read to a Shelter Dog Program gives young readers a forgiving (and furry) ear to listen to them practice reading. This gives the animal companionship, the sound of a calming voice, and an opportunity to get a few scratches and treats along the way.

Photo courtesy San Diego Humane Society

Refreshing Old Practices
Out with the old and in with the new—and improved! As public perception changes and the needs of animals within a community change, shelter protocols must change as well. Some of those include:

• Offering accessible hours of operation to the public; for example, being open on the weekends, and having one night a week where the shelter is open after regular business hours. This gives people with traditional work schedules and other obligations times they can access and visit the animal shelter.
• Lifting outdated adoption barriers such as income requirements or home checks.
• Prioritizing pet reunification.
• Expanding foster care programs to support adoption outside the shelter walls.
• Feral cat programs, or Trap, Neuter, Return, Manage (TNRM), keep them out of shelters, but offer management and care of the colonies plus to control their population.
• Humane education for the community around animal issues such as feral cats, spaying and neutering, microchipping, and other animal issues.
• Implementing volunteers across all areas of shelter administration and operation and animals’ health and well-being.
• Marketing and the use of social platforms are integral to showing the public that the shelter has nothing to hide, welcomes visitors, and can ask for public assistance when the shelter is overwhelmed.

Offering Outside Support Services for Community Members
• Fencing and small repairs programs. Helping a community member keep their animals from getting out of the yard or home reduces shelter intake.
• Post-adoption training courses help new pet parents navigate a successful transition from shelter to home.
• Pet food banks help pet parents provide food for their pets during challenging times instead of surrendering their pet to the shelter due to lack of funds.
• Low-cost medical clinics at the shelter, mobile, or at veterinarian offices help pet parents access easy and affordable care.
• Housing animals during times of emergency without risk of euthanasia for community members experiencing temporary challenges, such as personal illness, transition from a domestic abuse situation to safe shelter, natural catastrophe, losing a home, seeking a new rental home that accept pets.

Thinking Outside the Box: Ways Animal Shelters are Connecting with Public
Despite the remodels, upgrades, and changes shelters have gone through, there are still those who are hesitant to enter an animal shelter for one reason or another. Luckily, there are alternatives to a visit to the shelter, including:
• Cat cafes that work with shelters or rescues and include areas to meet adoptable cats while sipping coffee or tea.
• Retail spaces that offer pet adoptions like Living Free Desert Outpost Store located in The Shops at Palm Desert and LA Love & Leashes at Westfield Century City in Los Angeles.
• Pet supply stores offering in-store adoption events.
• Nationwide events like Clear the Shelters, sponsored by large media outlets.
• Mega adoption events usually held outdoors offering pet adoptions from multiple organizations with a day of events, including food trucks, entertainment, shopping vendors, and fun activities for kids.
• Puppy and kitten yoga is exactly what it sounds like. A yoga class where shelter volunteers bring kittens and/or puppies to class and allow them to explore and help you find your Zen. Ask your yoga studio if they host these events!

The animal shelter system has come a long way, but there is still work to be done. The animal welfare world is one in constant need, with limited resources, and that’s why the community sheltering model is so powerful. It allows everyone to get involved, brings engagement among the community, identifies relevant issues and needs, and builds a platform for finding solutions—the biggest one being saving the lives of animals.

Shelter or Rescue?

It’s important to note that, while your community may have many organizations with the words “animal shelter” in the name, there are distinctions between each model. These models are explained below.

Government-Operated Animal Shelters
Municipal animal shelters are open admission, which means the public may turn in a lost animal, injured wildlife, stray farm animals, or surrender their pet. This usually means there is an animal control department that patrols the community within the city limits, picking up strays, redirecting or triaging wildlife, responding to animal abuse calls, and in some cases issuing citations for pets that do not have a license within the city. Examples of this model are Coachella Valley Animal Campus, LA Animal Services, and Riverside County Animal Services.

Non-Profit Shelters & Rescues Offer a Safe Haven
The municipal shelter system cannot work alone and relies on the support of animal welfare organizations including non-profit shelters and rescues to take in animals at risk of euthanasia.
Here’s a look at the partnerships that make the system work.

Public-Private Animal Shelter Model. This is a model where funding is provided by both the city the animal shelter services and a non-profit charity arm that accepts donations from the public or other entities. This model provides care for higher need cases and does not euthanize animals for space. Examples are San Diego Humane Society and Palm Springs Animal Shelter.

Non-Profit Animal Shelter. This model is supported strictly by donations, typically with no budget support from the city they reside in. The non-profit shelter model often offers higher care to the animals and does not euthanize for space. An example of this is Animal Samaritans.
Non-Profit Animal Rescue with Shelter Facility. This is a non-profit organization that is funded by donations and has a brick-and-mortar facility that allows them to house animals in addition to using the foster-based model. Examples are California Paws Rescue, Wags & Walks, Loving All Animals, and Helen Woodward Animal Center.

Non-Profit Foster Based Animal Rescue. This is a non-profit organization that is funded by donations and does not have a brick-and-mortar facility. The animals are cared for by volunteer fosters and live in a home environment temporarily while they await adoption. Examples are Labelle Foundation and The Beagle Freedom Project. Animals are only saved when a foster is available.

The Independent Rescuer. This is a person who may or may not hold a non-profit status, but rescues animals on a small scale; for example, one at a time. These rescuers will rescue, rehabilitate, foster, and find an adopter using their own means or fundraising through social media or online fundraising sites, such as They are as integral to the lifesaving process as larger organizations.
Ideally, all these organizations would work together to keep shelter animals moving from government shelters to safe shelters and rescues to adopted homes.

Alicia Bailey
Alicia Bailey
Alicia Bailey is a writer specializing in animal welfare topics and issues. Prior to writing full time she spent 13+ years working in rescue and animal sheltering, holding leadership roles in both. She has worked with numerous local and national non-profit organizations including Best Friends Animal Society, NKLA, The Palm Springs Animal Shelter, Coachella Valley Animal Campus, and many others. Alicia is mom to 3 uniquely abled dogs, including @LittleBoogieShoes & @Bust.A.Moves.


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